Analysing Apple Ditching the 3.5 mm Connector Pt. 2

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Scale

The 3.5mm connector is a standard that has been adopted for so long on so many devices, it’s pretty ridiculous, thus its current scale of users. You might think that its rivalled only by USB, and things went well when that was taken away, but I don’t think even USB is on as many devices.

Now consider the iPhone. This is Apple’s most profitable product ever. Consistent growth over the past 8 years, record opening weekends, amazing engineering, raking in billions upon billions of dollars every single quarter. Oh, and not to mention the instigator and the longstanding benchmark of the entire smartphone market as we know it. This, too, is pretty ridiculous.

A huge number of people use 3.5mm headphones and devices, and a huge number of people use iPhones. Overall, of course a large number of people will be affected. But are they equipped to handle the inconveniences of a 3.5mm-less iPhone?

A small contingent of people won’t care because they can afford to purchase whatever it takes to make the switch to the new iPhone as seamless as possible.

However, there are many people - regardless of their income - who have an iPhone that have essentially gone out of their way to own an iPhone, and buy one as often as they can, simply because the iPhone is that good. These people might not, however, go out of their way to buy everything else that “completes” the iPhone experience. For example, people might be happy enough with the ease of use in iOS to buy the iPhone, and ignore everything else about it like its camera, Apple Pay, iCloud, relatively expensive third-party apps that might do a better job than Apple’s own, etc. I think a lot of the Chinese market falls under this category.

These people are likely to continue with their decision to buy an iPhone the next time they plan to. However, I don’t think these people will be too happy when they come across the inconvenience of incompatibility with 3.5mm headphones and other audio devices.

I think one reason why we haven’t heard backlash from MacBook users regarding USB compatibility is that there are other Macs to choose from, and purchasers of the MacBook are more aware of the tradeoff they’ve made. In addition, the amount of MacBook users - let alone, Mac users - are far from the same scale as the amount of iPhone users, so the problem isn’t as pronounced based on even that alone.

On the other hand, the same is not afforded for the iPhone customer, as previous models are sold on the basis of affordability, not use cases. The Plus model fulfils that role, and it’s most likely that even the Plus model of the next iPhone will adopt the lack of a 3.5mm connector if the smaller model does so as well.

Let’s continue with the assumption that there’s a huge number of assured iPhone buyers out there who won’t factor in the lack of a 3.5mm connector. Now let’s add the assumption that I could be wrong and that people won’t care about it that much, like with the MacBook, which is still quite likely.

I think the real frustrations will come out over the longer-term; say, 2-3 years. Will manufacturers make compatible products quickly enough when the demand starts to rise? Will those products be made affordable? Will they be affordable quickly enough?

Design and engineering

Some of the more interesting discussions I’ve seen about this rumour revolve around the possibilities enabled by the removal of the headphone jack.

One design, alluded to in the header, proposes wireless versions of the Apple EarPods that come with each new iPhone. They can be charged via the iPhone’s Lightning port, just like the Apple Pencil.

In addition, such headphones could inadvertently solve other problems with wired headphones like tangled cables, or the buds being tugged out by doorknobs and other objects, just by virtue of there being less cable involved.

Quinn from SnazzyLabs suggests that the lack of a headphone jack could pressure manufacturers of Hi-Fi headphones and other audio devices to use the Lightning port, thus causing them to create external DAC’s, possibly enabling better sounding audio like never before on mobile. He mentions that this is already possible, but removing the headphone jack gives manufacturers no other options apart from Bluetooth, which there isn’t as large a market for as wired headphones.

It’s also been rumoured that Apple’s been looking at using Li-Fi, a technology that can transmit data up to 100 times faster than Wi-Fi. This could get rid of the latency issues that’s plagued Bluetooth audio devices up to this point, bridging another gap between wired and wireless headphones. While the technology’s set to be usable with consumer devices a lot further in the future, Apple could be laying the foundations now.

Some benefits don’t pertain to headphones at all, as touched on in the previous part. As previously discussed, Apple could be aiming to reduce the volume of the phone, but we could see the opposite occur.

But consider if Apple’s main objective here was addition, not subtraction. The jack takes up a large space, at least by Apple’s standards, inside the phone. Engineers at Apple would have to continue to engineer nearby components of the phone around the jack if it stayed, inevitably creating compromises. These compromises could be avoided if the headphone jack is no longer there, creating more room for better internals to be fitted into the next phone.

The removal of the headphone jack could increase the water resistance of the phone. When the iPhone 6s came out, I came across an impressive water resistance test on YouTube, wherein an iPhone was totally submerged and remained functional after an hour underwater. It was also discovered that the 6s iPhones had a new gasket and silicone seals to better keep liquids away from the inside.

I think the 6s iPhones weren’t advertised as such for the reason the Apple Watch isn’t advertised as such: to avoid liability. Taking away the headphone jack would be another constraint removed from, and another step towards, a possible complete waterproofing of the next iPhone.

Conclusion

It’s obviously taken me a while to completely digest a rumour like this with surprising depth to it. At first I was a bit appalled that the possibility could even be entertained. But the more I thought about it, the more it didn’t seem as much a problem as I thought. People probably replace their headphones often enough anyways - I know I do - and the new iPhone should come with compatible headphones, most probably wireless or at least Lightning versions of EarPods, in the box to offset some of the frustration.

The only problem I could see is the rate at which affordable headphones compatible with Lightning and Bluetooth - with prices comparable to consumer-grade headphones we have now - will be made available. EarPods aren’t exactly durable, great-sounding earphones. A lot of people will, for whatever reason, want something else, and it’d be shameful if the choice Apple users enjoy now suddenly disappears.

Although, all things considered, I could be overstating the importance of headphones. I’m personally reliant, if not over-reliant, on headphones, particularly for music and podcasts, but there are people that care about neither to a great extent and use their phones for entirely different things. Still, it’ll be interesting where the discussions will be taken once Apple actually takes out the headphone jack. Surprisingly, I don’t expect it to be any worse than the removal of ports from the MacBook.